I’m not ashamed to admit it: I still have the occasional nightmare about Mohamed Sanu.
I made the arduous journey back in September 2011 from Athens, Ohio, to Piscataway, N.J., to watch Rutgers take on my Ohio Bobcats. Sanu, Rutgers stud wideout at the time, single-handedly ensured that my trip was a losing one, racking up 176 yards and two touchdowns on a school-record 16 receptions.
But the lasting impression for me wasn’t the eye-popping statistics, but rather the ease with which they were accomplished. Sanu was simply bigger and stronger than everyone else on the field. Once the junior receiver got his body between the defender and the ball, there was nothing the DBs could do. I have rarely, if ever, seen a wideout so totally take over a game not through big plays, but by brutally, consistently grinding down a secondary.
I have followed his career from afar with a kind of underlying trepidation ever since.
There are signs that Sanu is becoming an integral part of the Bengals offense. Blanked and/or inactive through the first few games of the season (save for his 73-yard Wildcat TD pass to A.J. Green against the Redskins), the rookie has come around to average just over three receptions a contest through the last five, punctuated by touchdowns in each of the past three weeks, including two on Sunday against Oakland.
It is the beginning of what should be a well-matched marriage between player and franchise. The Bengals get a steady, understated performer—the antithesis of the team’s receiving core pre-AJ era. And for Sanu, he’s found one of the places in the league where his unflashy game will be utilized and appreciated the most.
During his final season at Rutgers, Sanu had six games with 10 catches or more and was but once held to fewer than five, and only twice all year did he bust out for gains of 20 yards or more. It was a graduate course in how to consistently, progressively take over games without having to rely on the homerun shot.
Sanu is the unwavering contrary to the fluctuating mid-‘00s Bengals teams that were nothing if not spectacular, in success and in failure.
The glory days of the 2005 season provide a telling example. The artist formerly known as Chad Johnson and Chris Henry had incredible years no doubt, but it was often all-or-nothing, relying heavily on the big play for production. This bipolar style extended to their off-the-field antics as well. TJ Houshmandzadeh is probably the best comparison to Sanu: A reliable-if-predictable secondary option. As Cincinnati struggled to replicate the heights of those days in following seasons, it was Houshmandzadeh that was shipped off first.
Bengals fans could use a bit of understated reliability at receiver after the decade-long Ochocinco era.
Green, for all of his undeniable talent, is also more of a big-play threat than a possession option and double-digit receptions guy. Sanu is the ideal counterbalance.
Most NFL franchises and fan bases gravitate toward the explosive option, but Bengals fans should also be ready to embrace the joy of a steady, consistent alternative. Let the Mohamed Sanu era begin.
Matt Pentz is a sports writer at the Longview Daily News in Washington state. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattpentz.